When I’m asked about what to expect in the coming school year, I usually offer a delightfully vague answer: it will be different.  I don’t know how it will be different, but I’m confident that it will be.  When I’m tempted to make a more adventurous prediction, I remind myself that I have degrees in education, not soothsaying.

Speaking of the mystical arts, on June 11, the NC Department of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education released their back-to-school guidance, Lighting Our Way Forward: NC’s Guidebook for Reopening Public Schools.  The document is a 121-page booklet that “provides considerations, recommendations, and best practices” but no mandates.  Instead, state education leaders deferred to Gov. Cooper and Secretary of the NC. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Dr. Mandy Cohen, who will announce their selection of one of three back-to-school options on July 1.  As Lt. Gov. Dan Forest discovered, DHHS would not reveal the precise metrics that they will use to make the call.

What are the options?

DHHS published an interim guidance document, StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12), days before the release of Lighting Our Way Forward.  Schools are required to prepare for the following scenarios:

  • Plan A: Minimal Social Distancing – Will be implemented assuming state COVID-19 metrics continue to stabilize and/or move in a positive direction.
  • Plan B: Moderate Social Distancing – Will be required if state COVID-19 metrics worsen, and it is determined additional restrictions are necessary. All requirements in the guidance apply, with additional requirements.  Plan B scheduling options include:
    • Option A: Grade level/span (Elementary and middle school students use elementary, middle, and high school campuses, while high school students take all courses through remote learning)
    • Option B: Alternating days
    • Option C: Alternating weeks
    • Option D: Half-day rotation
    • Option E: Synchronous teaching (School determines which students and/or courses are on-site and which are remote)
    • Option F: Hybrid
  • Plan C: Remote Learning Only – Will be implemented only if state COVID-19 metrics worsen significantly enough to require suspension of in-person instruction and the implementation of remote learning for all students, based on the remote learning plans required by Session Law 2020-3.

As mentioned above, Plans A and B come with a lengthy list of requirements.  Examples of minimum requirements include,

  • Have staff monitor arrival and dismissal to discourage congregating and ensure students go straight from a vehicle to their classrooms and vice-versa.
  • Incorporate frequent handwashing and sanitation breaks into classroom activity.
  • Limit sharing of personal items and supplies such as writing utensils.
  • Conduct symptom screening of any person entering the building, including students, staff, family members, and other visitors.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces in the vehicle (e.g., surfaces in the driver’s cockpit, hard seats, armrests, door handles, seat belt buckles, light and air controls, doors, and windows, and grab handles) prior to morning routes and prior to afternoon routes.

Despite the objections of parents and educators, current DHHS guidance does not require students or school personnel to wear masks.

Are these plans feasible?

Immediately after the release of DHHS’s interim guidance, teachers began to air their objections to the plan on social media.  One teacher wrote, “I don’t see how feasible these guidelines are.”  Another proclaimed, “I just finished reading the state guidelines for reopening schools.  My reactions: Yeah, right…Whoever wrote this has never been in a public school or bus with students present.”  One teacher summed up the general feeling of those who had read the plan.  “Awesome! This is a great plan. (said no one. Ever.)”

It is not difficult to understand why educators dismissed the plan.

If state education officials require schools to implement plan A or B, teachers will spend more time on surveillance and sanitation than instruction.  Imagine the process of screening the 3,500 students that attend Myers Park High School in Mecklenburg County every school day, while cleaning and sanitizing the thermometer “using manufacturer’s instructions between each use.”  Imagine elementary school teachers trying to “incorporate frequent handwashing and sanitation breaks into classroom activity.”  Imagine the middle school teachers who try to “limit sharing of personal items and supplies such as writing utensils.”  We ask a lot of our teachers, staff, and administrators. These plans ask too much.

The underlying problem is that noncompliance with social distancing guidelines is inevitable.  Young children and those with developmental disorders may have difficulty adopting social distancing practices.  Moreover, public displays of affection and halfwitted disobedience are the hallmarks of the American teenager.  I know.  I have two.

Given the difficulty of implementing social distancing plans that adhere to DHHS guidelines for plans A and B, I believe that Cooper and Cohen will opt for Plan C, that is, full-time remote learning.  Yet, selecting that option would pose a serious problem for working parents who do not have the flexibility to work from home, such as those who work in the service industry, run a small business, or work shifts.  Plan C does the most harm to low- and middle-income households that have fewer child care and supervision options and often limited access to broadband and internet-accessible devices.  These impediments limit the amount of meaningful instruction that the child receives and widen the achievement gap.

There is no perfect solution.  Indeed, 49 other states and the District of Columbia are trying to figure out how to conduct the 2020-21 school year in a way that is educationally sound and safe for school employees, children, and parents.  The choice is simple.  Are we willing to sacrifice educational quality for safety? Or do we sacrifice safety for educational quality?  In the era of COVID-19, it appears that we can’t have both.


Photo courtesy of Keung Hui @nckhui of the News & Observer.